A large influx of unaccompanied children crossing into Texas’s Rio Grande Valley in the last month has forced U.S. officials to scramble to provide shelter and humane conditions for the migrants, the Obama administration said Monday.
On a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials warned of an “urgent humanitarian situation.” They said the government planned for an influx of children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, as a result of ongoing violence in those countries, but didn’t expect the numbers it has seen.
“We prepared for an increase from previous years,” one official said. “The increase that we saw this year was much larger than anticipated.”
As a result, the Border Patrol is struggling to meet its goal of turning all unaccompanied children over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours of their arrival. Border Patrol initiates removal proceedings before turning children over to HHS, which then works to see if the children have family or other sponsors in the U.S, and ensures that the children are seen by child welfare specialists.
“Since the numbers increased very dramatically in May, we haven’t been able to meet that 72 hour goal,” one official acknowledged.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate has led a cross-agency response to the crisis. And administration officials said the government has requested from Congress around $2 billion for HHS, and around $160 million for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the Border Patrol, in response.
Some of the children are being sent to a newly-opened facility at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, while others are being sent to a naval base in southern California. Officials said some would also be sent to a facility at the Fort Sill army base in Oklahoma, which is being expanded in response to the situation.
“We try to provide hot meals and showers and try to make them as comfortable as possible,” an official said. “But with the ultimate goal of trying to move the children as quickly as possible to much better facilities.”
The officials stressed that the influx is coming only from Central American countries seeing extraordinary violence, and not, for instance, from Mexico or Nicaragua. That demonstrates, they argued, that it’s not the result of U.S. immigration policies.